'It was brainwashing': Canadian speaks out about yoga guru accused of sexual assault

Nancy Miller describes her time at Thailand's Agama yoga school, whose former leader Swami Vivekananda Saraswati has been accused of widespread sexual assault.

Narcis Tarcau — a.k.a. Swami Vivekananda Saraswati — accused of running 'sex cult' at Agama Yoga in Thailand

Narcis Tarcau, a.k.a. Swami Vivekandanda Saraswati, is pictured here with Nancy Miller. 'The string tied around my wrist is part of a puja, part a common ceremonial gesture in yoga,' she said. (Submitted by Nancy Miller )
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When Nancy Miller asked world famous yoga guru Swami Vivekananda Saraswati for guidance about how to find romance, his advice shocked her.

"His only advice for people who were coming with any kind of issue around romance was to have sex with as many people as you possibly could," the Toronto woman told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"Obviously, a lot of us didn't take his advice. But he looked at me and said, 'You know, Nancy, you have such beautiful eyes. You could seduce anyone.'"

Saraswati, whose real name is Narcis Tarcau, has been accused of widespread sexual assault against his students at the Agama Yoga school on the Thai island of Koh Phangan.

Miller studied and taught at the school, but is not one of the women accusing Tarcau of sexual assault.

The tantric yoga guru has taught all over the world, including in Canada. 

Fourteen women and two men told the Guardian newspaper that Agama facilitated a culture of fear, misogyny and sexual assault, with some going so far as to call it a "sex cult."

Tarcau is believed to have fled the island in July after the allegations were first made public in an article by journalist Be Scofield on Medium

The school did not immediately respond to questions from As It Happens, but told the Guardian it has launched an internal investigation after 31 women submitted testimonials alleging abuse at its scenic Thailand retreat, which is popular with western tourists.

"I feel that much of the information that is currently circulating does not align with the privacy, support and compassion that should be awarded the affected women," reads a statement on Agama Yoga's website, signed by founding member Mihaiela Pentiuc.

"At times, it feels that the bloggers and social media treat the women as collateral damage in a war focused on financial, commercial, anti-spiritual and maybe revengeful interests," the statement reads. 

'You get drawn in'

Agama Yoga offers classes to thousands of people at its scenic retreat in Thailand, as well as schools in India, Colombia and Austria.

Miller said that when she first arrived at the Thai campus in 2003, she had no reason to believe anything was amiss.

"It's not an easy place where you kind of walk into that school and see it as a cult. It looks like this beautiful place in a beautiful part of the world and people doing yoga," she said.

"And not all the teachings are terrible, so you get drawn in by the better teachings."

This photo of Agama Yoga's Thai campus was posted to the school's Facebook page. (Agama Yoga/Facebook )

But after awhile, she said she started to get "a feeling that something wasn't right."

She said Tarcau would make homophobic remarks and tell students that feminism was destroying culture.

What's more, she said it was an open secret that if a woman went to his personal bungalow for advice, "that automatically meant that you had sex with the Swami."

Allegations of rape

The Guardian outlines allegations from multiple women, both named and anonymous, accusing Tarcau of "penetrating women with his fingers against their will, aggressively groping them, or performing sex acts on them without consent."

The former pupils told the newspaper Tarcau would tell his students that having sex with him would "heal" their spirits, unlock a pathway to enlightenment and cure "sexual blockages."

Swami Vivekandanda Saraswati, whose real name is Narcis Tarcau, has been accused of sexually assaulting his students at Agama Yoga in Thailand. (retreatnetwork.com)

If the student refused to have sex with him, they said he would say, "I know what's best for you," before forcing himself upon them.

One woman, who is not named, said Tarcau anally raped her.

"There was no stopping when I said 'please, please stop, it hurts,'" she said. "I was so brainwashed at that point that I thought 'he's my teacher, he knows better than me what I need.'"

A culture of fear

Miller said she was never sexually assaulted by Tarcau and wasn't aware of the rape allegations when she quit the school in 2008.

But she said she witnessed a culture of sexism and grooming that would make such widespread sexual assault possible.

It was brainwashing. It was like, if you spoke out about this school there would be karmic retribution.- Nancy Miller, former  Agama   Yoga student and teacher 

"I had my own sort of  misgivings about the school and the climate and some of the teachings, so when these accusations finally came to light — and they've been sort of brewing online for a long time — it was a relief in a way," she said.

She said Tarcau and other instructors taught that if you spoke ill of your teacher, it would be spiritually damaging and "would haunt you for the rest of your life."

"It was brainwashing. It was like, if you spoke out about this school there would be karmic retribution," she said. 

"If you spoke out badly about your teacher, then your life would be messed up. He actually taught that."

No criminal charges 

Tarcau has not faced any criminal charges.

Col. Satit Kongniam, the chief of police on Koh Phangantold the Guardian they are aware of the allegations, but that only one person came forward to police to report a rape.

That alleged crime occurred more than three months ago, he said, which is the statute of limitations for assault charges in Thailand.

Another report of rape has filed to the Thai Embassy in Australia, the newspaper reports.

Two other senior male instructors at the school have also been accused of sexual assault, according to the Guardian. The newspaper did not name them. Agama Yoga told the paper it has suspended all of the accused yoga teachers. 

Revelers watch the sun rise after a hard night of partying during the monthly Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan island in southern Thailand in July 2013. The island is a popular tourist destination. (George Henton/EPA)

Tarcau, who is from Romania, previously studied under Gregorian Bivolaru, another Romanian guru who publicly admitted it was his mission to have sex with 1,000 virgins on the path to enlightenment.

Bivolaru was sentenced by Romanian authorities in 2013 for human trafficking and having sex with an underage girl. 

He was arrested in Paris in 2016 and extradited to Romania. He went on the lam after being released on conditional parole in 2017, according to local news reports. 

He is on Europol's most wanted list for human trafficking.

Canadian connection 

Tarcau, meanwhile, has travelled the world to teach tantric yoga.

Over the years, Tarcau taught classes at the Shanti Retreat and Inn on Wolfe Island near Kingston, Ont., most recently in 2012. The retreat has posted photos of his 2008 visit on its website.

Contacted for comment, the retreat's owner Darin Madore said he was unaware of the allegations against Tarcau at the time.

Madore said the guru was "professional and well-received" by those at the retreat in Kingston. 

But, he says that he is "concerned about the sexual misconduct allegations against him and I feel it needs to be investigated. It has to be followed up when there's something that serious," Madore said. 

The Shanti Retreat and Inn on Wolfe Island in Ontario posted photos of Swami Vivekananda Saraswati's 2008 visit. (shantiretreat.ca)

Miller said Tarcau has also taught classes in Montreal and Vancouver, but As It Happens was unable to confirm this. 

She said she's speaking out about Agama now in the hopes of empowering other women to tell their stories.

"I encourage women to come forward. I know it's very difficult to do," she said. 

"This story has to come out because so many of these things get buried and they have been for so long." 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Nancy Miller produced by Jeanne Armstrong.